How a fifth-century Catholic saint inspired a most unusual holiday
The Water of Life. Whiskey. Uisce beatha.
Then there’s beoir. Beer, that is. Add a little green food coloring.
And of course, I remember some vicious purple bruises from my elementary school days “pinches” because I didn’t wear green. Nowadays, random pinching of people will likely earn you a conversation about bullying, or a trip to the human resources office, depending on your age, but people often wear something green on March 17, just in case.
Or maybe they just want to be kissed. There’s another St. Patrick’s Day tradition. “Kiss me, I’m Irish.” At my age, I don’t get too many offers, so I figure a swatch of green on my outfit won’t hurt. Pretty please?
Add companionship, Irish music and perhaps a jig, and you have a traditional St. Patrick’s Day celebration…which may have little to do with Ireland or St. Patrick.
The original St. Patrick was a Christian Briton who was taken as a slave to Ireland, escaped, and later returned to minister to his former oppressors. Like so many holy men and women of ancient and medieval times, he was guided by a dream. It must have been a powerful one, because he studied 15 years before his ordination and return to Ireland. There, he ministered to the local Christian communities and sought to convert those who were still pagan.
In Ireland, Patrick used the tried-and-true technique of co-option to transform native religious practices into Christian ones. For instance, fire was sacred to the Irish—cows were traditionally driven between fires at Beltane to protect them from fairies—and Patrick lit bonfires in his Easter celebrations.
According to one source, he enraged the king at Tara by lighting a competing Easter fire just as the court was celebrating the return of summer. Traditionally, all fires were put out, only to be relit from the royal fire, so Patrick was co-opting not just the symbol, but the royal prerogative.
St. Patrick’s holiday, March 17, reflects the supposed date of his death in 460 A.D. His feast was first celebrated in the ninth or tenth century, but the holiday people associate with him in popular imagination—wearing green, parading and carousing—originated largely in the United States. In 1762, the world’s first St. Patrick’s Day parade was held in New York City.
Since St. Patrick’s Day takes place during Lent, the celebration can be a welcome release for Catholics who are fasting or abstaining. Traditionally, a bundle of shamrock (seamair óg, or “young clover”) was worn throughout the day. In the evening, the wearer would put the shamrock leaves into a glass of alcohol and, when the glass was drained, toss the leaves over his or her shoulder for good luck, according to the Irish Examiner.
In Chattanooga, St. Patrick’s Day is notable for the “St. Patrick’s Day Flood” on 1973, in which three days of rain totaling more than nine inches caused Chattanooga Creek and South Chickamauga Creek to overflow. The St. Chatty’s Day Parade was established in 2014 and is still going strong. And of course, plenty of neighborhood pubs and clubs host parties, too.
Raise a Glass to a Family St. Patrick’s Day
When you ask Chattanoogans about St. Patrick’s Day, many people describe a family-oriented holiday (and what celebration isn’t, around here)? Most plans are very modest—wearing a wee bit of green and indulging in a little teasing. One Catholic friend explained how much the feast resonated with her Irish heritage, complementing her belief in fairies and saints. Like many people I spoke with, she doesn’t drink or attend parades on the date…a swatch of green is enough.
If you do go out, you’re likely to find home-style festivities.
“Our St. Patrick’s Day celebration is one of bringing together family and friends,” says Sandy Hunt of Moccasin Bend Brewing Company. “We celebrate the ‘Americanized’ version of St. Patrick’s Day with corned beef and cabbage, green shamrocks and lots of beer (green is optional) while at the same time we strive to pay homage to the traditional Irish pub where generations of families can meet and feel right at home. Our focus on providing a community meeting place for friends and families means we are keeping the spirit of St. Patrick’s Day with us all year long.”
What about St. Patrick’s as a family holiday, I ask. Does your personal holiday influence how you celebrate it at your business? In fact, Sandy tells me, there’s no separating them.
“Our personal lives are so entwined with the business, it’s hard to separate the personal traditions from the professional ones,” she says. “I guess our traditions regarding St. Patrick’s Day are more like philosophies. The minute our customers walk through our door, they’re family.”
Swingin’ on a Star
Here in southeast Tennessee, we love our old-fashioned square dances and clogging. If you’ve ever stepped to a caller while a fiddle kept the tempo quick and rollicking, you’ve participated in a tradition whose roots trail from Appalachia back to Scotland and Ireland.
Trust Chattanoogans to do things their own way. While Irish dance includes step dance (picture Riverdance, with the rigid upper bodies and quickly jigging feet) and set dancing (a relative of our square dance, with couples switching up partners), southeast Tennessee is bouncing with social dances this week.
At Blissful Wellness on Vance Road, new to expert dancers will gather on March 17 for St. Patty’s Swing Dance, a healthy alternative to bar-hopping.
“Our Swing Dance Nights were born out of Blissful Wellness and Nutrition World’s goal of bringing the community of Chattanooga together in a healthier way,” says Maggie Bates-Bailey of Blissful Wellness. “We try to accomplish that through education, nutrition and movement.”
Just one of a series of themed dances, St. Patty’s Swing Dance will be hosted by Holli Hutson, a well-known Chattanooga teacher of dance and Pilates. The event will feature something for everyone, Maggie says. People who want an especially healthy St. Patrick’s evening can even come early for yoga class.
“We love [Holli] and her love of all things dance,” Maggie says. “We start with a flowing yoga class followed by a sampling of kombucha [fermented tea] made locally by Blue Indian Kombucha sold right upstairs at Nutrition World. Sampling of the kombucha will be offered after the hour class.
“Then at 7 p.m. our swing dance social will begin. We will offer a 45 to 60 minute class and follow it up with light refreshments and practice time or simply talking about life with some new friends. [St. Patrick’s Day] is traditionally associated with pub crawls and long nights of drinking green drinks. Come and have a fun healthy night out and still leave time for all of Chattanooga’s evening events this great town offers.”
Maggie will be playing Irish music for the dance—I can’t wait to find out what Irish swing music sounds like. She’ll be sharing her favorite Irish proverbs, too. Like many other Chattanoogans, Maggie has Irish roots.
“My grandmother came over on a boat with the maiden name of Eileen Fury,” Maggie says. “She passed away this last year, so I am dedicating this class to her.”
So where did “Kiss me, I’m Irish” come from?
Well, the original “kiss” wasn’t something exchanged you with Irish people exactly…instead, you kiss a big lump of bluestone rock, the Blarney Stone. Set into Blarney Castle in County Cork, the Blarney Stone supposedly bestows the gift of rhetorical prowess. Kiss the stone, and you can persuade anyone of anything. It’s a bit of a trick. You have to lean in, upside down and backwards, with someone holding on to keep you from falling.
If you’re not Irish, never fear. You may be tied to the Blarney stone through Scots ancestors. The stone is supposed to have been given to King Cormac McCarthy, who once lived in Blarney Castle, by Robert the Bruce of Scotland in return for military aid.
While the stone has been part of the castle since the 14th century, it was only as recently Queen Elizabeth I’s reign that the world “Blarney” became associated with a silver tongue. The Irish king Dermot McCarthy had promised her the castle, but he kept putting off the surrender with one excuse after another. “More Blarney talk!” she exclaimed in exasperation.
And as for the kissing, apparently another king saved a fairy or witch-woman from drowning, and she granted his castle, the Blarney stone in particular, with the gift of conveying persuasiveness with a kiss.
Speaking of fairies, I’ve never been there, but the Blarney Castle website advertises a rock garden with fairy glades, wooded trails and faces in the stones. Sounds a lot like Rock City to me (where they also hold a Shamrock City series of events).
I might check it out. Or then again, I might stay home, add some green food coloring to my eggs and ham, and kiss a pretty Cailín (Irish maiden).